Why Feminists Love “Battlestar Galactica”March 22, 2013
Four years ago this week, the final episode of one of the most feminist TV shows ever made aired. And we still can’t get over it.
Since Battlestar Galactica premiered on the Sci Fi Channel in 2004, the show — a remake of the campy, one-season 1979 original — has inspired a half-dozen books of academic essays, several prequels, a multi-season ode on Portlandia, lots of praise in the feminist community, and at least one graduate school thesis.
Battlestar Galactica follows a fugitive fleet of humans who are on the run after robots nuked the 12 planets the humans called home. The robots, called cylons, were created by the humans as a manual labor force. The cylons became sentient, rebelled, and left the planets — only to return decades later to take vengeance on their former masters. The 50,000 or so human survivors are on the run through space in search of another home planet, the mythical Earth.
Maybe you don’t have the chills yet, but Battlestar Galactica hooks even those of us who avowedly aren’t into sci-fi. Here’s why.
In Battlestar Galactica, a woman is president — and she’s the best president ever. Laura Roslin is a ruthless protector of civil rights and the only person who has the guts to go toe-to-toe with the military commander, Bill Adama. She’s pragmatic but not unemotional. And while she’s making all the hard decisions, she’s also battling recurring breast cancer.
Actually, capable women are everywhere, and they’re not all white. A woman is also the best pilot in the galaxy, another is the highest-ranking officer in the surviving fleet, and — as in reality but seldom on TV — women are ever-present as capable, strong humans (and cylons!). They also exist as sneaky enemies, but even the femmes fatales on Battlestar Galactica end up complicated and nuanced. And while most of the principal cast is white, the cast is remarkably diverse by Hollywood standards.
The show expands acceptable expressions of femininity. If you’ve heard about any character in the show, it’s probably the “masculine” Kara Thrace (pilot call sign Starbuck). She’s everyone’s favorite for a reason. Taking cues from the original 1979 series, in which the character was a man, the female Starbuck is a cocky, promiscuous, pugnacious troublemaker (and the aforementioned talented pilot). She’s also not delicate. Starbuck has short, blunt hair and visible muscles for most of the series, and she usually doesn’t wear makeup or style her hair or clothes. Despite her nonconformity to the usual preening expected of young women and the fact that she would probably intimidate the men in our world, Starbuck is very desirable to the men in the fleet. Yet she’s almost never the passive object of desire that most leading ladies are relegated to be in film and on TV.
Battlestar Galactica shows what our egalitarian future could be. The status of gender, race, and sexuality in the show is inarguably more progressive than the reality we live in today. One of the actors even described the show as “gender-blind.” Women officers are called “sir” along with the men, everyone lives and bathes in unisex bunks and bathrooms, queer relationships go unremarked upon, and racism as we know it basically doesn’t exit. Although it’s still fair to ask if this is, in fact, a picture of true equality, it’s still interesting to see a future that is imagined to be the logical result of the American democratic process. And it’s rare that a futuristic show would wrestle with so many feminist (well, liberal feminist) political and social goals.
There’s so much more. There’s the ambiguity and the commentary on modern-day issues like the Iraq War. The fact that the show encourages oppositional spectatorship. That it turns the male gaze back on men. And then there are all the queer reinterpretations. Or the mix of Greek and Christian mythology. The show is a gold mine for feminist, queer, and film theorists. So we can expect even more homages and analyses in the coming years, even though the show wrapped long ago.
Perhaps feminists’ obsessing over Battlestar Galactica four years later is overkill. But until we can expect anywhere near this level of progressivism all over the dial, at least we have BSG — the show that made geeks of the best of us.